This fall, we’ll begin to see the impact of the new bishop of Rome on the church with the opening of the October Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, focusing on the family and evangelizing in the modern world. There isn’t much chance of a change in doctrine on many of these issues – the ban on divorced Catholics re-marrying in church and receiving communion, the disapproval of cohabitation before marriage, the ban on contraception, and certainly the aversion to same-sex commitment and love. But Francis has already shown that he is prepared to take a non-linear approach to these questions – and he keeps surprising.
What Francis seems to be saying is that in all these questions, while the doctrine will not change, the call to mercy should be paramount. In other words, in individual cases, the decision to marry a couple who have been living together or have experienced one or more divorces should be left to a merciful pastor, not a rigid and distant dogma. How to get this point across? As so often, Francis uses his own actions, rather than words:
The Holy Father presided over the wedding of 20 couples Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica. From a distance, the group seemed fairly typical: the couples ranged from ages 25 to 56 and were all from the Diocese of Rome. But the underlying storyline is far more telling: one bride was already a mother, some of the couples had already been living together, and others had previously been married.
This is what our beloved Joe Biden would call a BFD. Priests who might have married similar couples in the past could be subject to discipline from Rome. Now, the bishop of Rome himself is presiding over them. Elizabeth Dias explains why this matters:
Since local churches currently tend to make their own decisions about serving communion to divorced and remarried, or cohabitating Catholics, any overarching guidance from the Holy Father this October could mean significant change. Cohabiting couples cannot be denied marriage by policy in the Catholic Church, but a priest is not obliged to marry a couple, and so Pope Francis’ example of presiding over a wedding for couples who had lived together will likely encourage other priests to follow suit.
Is the Holy Father subverting formerly rigid teachings? I don’t really think so. His restatement of the core Catholic understanding of the sacrament of marriage – that its core is the uniting of a man and a woman – is pretty substantive and full-throated:
“This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man. Here we see the reciprocity of differences.”
Well, that should finally alienate America’s blank slate progressives. What I think is going on here is simple sensitivity to the individual person and a particular situation – think of Jesus and the woman about to be stoned for adultery – and Francis regards mercy and forgiveness as the core Christian virtue. To show no mercy in today’s world is to consign countless people to a life outside the church altogether, when they may sincerely be attempting to live out the Gospels in an imperfect world with flawed human nature. If that is the case, then you can almost hear Francis’ response: “Who am I to judge?”
(Photo: Brides attend the Sunday Mass held by Pope Francis at the St. Peter’s Basilica on September 14, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. During the Mass Pontiff celebrated the marriage of twenty couples. By Giulio Origlia/Getty Images)